You language-butchering bastards are killing me

4 minute read

Apparently becoming stressed by bad grammar is a sign of implicit linguistic knowledge. Bonza.

Back in my print newspaper days I collected heinous acts of grammar-mangling and crimes against good writing, like a satin bowerbird collects blue things.

I once came across an article written by a young cadet, describing a visiting movie star as a “bit of a pre-Madonna”. One sports subeditor changed Sheffield Wednesday to Sheffield tomorrow.

I could go on.

I get vocal when I’m stressed. I curse at my computer when it runs slow. I yell at the male superb wren that insists on tap-tap-tapping on my office window, all the damn time. Cricket commentators drive me to the use of very, VERY bad words.

My pet hate is television journalists – what us old-school print journos tend to call “microphone stands with wigs” – who mangle the English language. Get off my screen.

Not that print media are sin-free. One of the worst acts of the big media corps was the slow death of the art of subediting.

These days I can barely read a newspaper without becoming apoplectic with rage at the butchering of grammar, syntax, tenses and adjectival clauses. Don’t even get me started on widows and orphans.

I have been known to need a lie down after coming across “gifted” as a verb, “agreeance” or “going forward”. My partner, who has learned over the years to recognise the difference between my desperate rants against idiocy and something that actually requires her attention, usually just pats me on the arm and tells me to think of my blood pressure.

Now I am relieved to see some actual science to back up her worry about my grammar crime-related health.

A new study out of the University of Birmingham in the UK has shown that our bodies go into stress mode when hearing misused grammar. Specifically, the authors discovered a direct correlation between instances of bad grammar and subjects’ heart rate variability.

Seriously, someone paid someone grant money for researching this. I’m in the wrong business. But I digress.

HRV captures the time between successive heart beats. The length of the intervals between a person’s successive heart beats tends to be variable when they are relaxed but becomes more regular when they are stressed. Counterintuitive, for mine, but there you go.

The new study revealed a statistically significant reduction in HRV in response to grammatical violations. This reduction reflected the extent of the grammatical violations, suggesting that the more errors a person heard, the more regular their heartbeat became—a sign of stress.

The authors say the research is the first evidence to suggest that HRV can be used as an indicator of implicit linguistic knowledge.

“Your knowledge about your first language is largely implicit, i.e., learning your mother tongue did not require you to sit and study, and using it does not require much, if any, thought,” said senior author Professor Dagmar Divjak.

“This also means that you will find it hard to pin down what exactly is right or wrong about a sentence and, even worse, explain why that is so, especially if you’ve not had formal language training.

“However, accurately assessing someone’s linguistic abilities, regardless of age and physical or cognitive abilities, is important for many questions pertaining to core areas of life relating to cognition, including brain health.

“This study provides us with a new method for tapping into aspects of cognition that are not directly observable. This is particularly valuable in work with language users who are unable to verbally express their opinion due to young or old age, or ill health.”

So I guess my partner should start worrying when I DON’T yell at the television. Good to know.

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